Samuel L. Jackson is currently reprising one of his more popular performances as the voice of one of the characters in the Disney/Pixar film “Incredibles 2.” While he has become a ubiquitous presence in film in recent years Jackson struggled for many years to gain prominence as an actor.
While his film and television credits date all the way back to 1972, for the next two decades, his most regular and probably profitable job was being Bill Cosby’s stand in for his sitcom “The Cosby Show.” Jackson did have a small role in the acclaimed Milos Forman film “Ragtime” in 1981, and he worked a lot in the theater both in New York and in regional markets. His first New York Theater credit was in an all African-American production of “Mother Courage” at the Public Theater in New York. He also appeared frequently in the plays of August Wilson and was the understudy to Charles S. Dutton in the Broadway hit “The Piano Lesson” shortly before his film career hit high gear.
Jackson made headlines in 1991 when the Spike Lee film “Jungle Fever” played the Cannes film festival. The Cannes Jury was so impressed with the work of Jackson that they created a special supporting actor award for him even though that award usually isn’t even given. Jackson has had a rare career that includes work in all genres from comedy to drama and beyond. He has frequently collaborated with Lee and Quentin Tarantino for some of his best roles. The latter has offered him excellent roles in “Pulp Fiction,” “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight.”
Let’s take a tour in our photo gallery above of Jackson’s Top 15 greatest performances, ranked from worst to best. In addition to the movies mentioned above, he has also been part of “The Avengers” and “Star Wars” universes. Where do your favorites rank? Did something terrific not even make our list?
15. SNAKES ON A PLANE (2006)
While not exactly a critical darling, come on, how can you resist a movie that tells you all you need to know about it right there in its title? This film is about snakes that get loose on a plane and Jackson gives a gung-ho performance as an FBI Agent dealing with them.
14. STAR WARS Series (1999, 2002, 2005)
George Lucas‘ long-awaited prequels to the original “Star Wars” films proved to be a bit of a let down for loyal fans who had waited decades to see the origins of the feud between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. His character was that of Mace Windu, a Jedi master and member of the council who opposes the training of Anakin Skywalker.
13. THE AVENGERS (2012)
Jackson is a part of the ever-growing Marvel Superhero family with his role as Nick Fury in “The Avengers.” He plays the director of S.H.I.E.L.D in the film and has joked that he gets to do more in this film than in the other ones in the series and that you don’t have to wait until the end of the film to see him.
12. LOSING ISAIAH (1995)
This film seemed like prime Oscar-bait material on paper but the final product fell short of that. It is the story of a crack addicted young woman (Halle Berry) who abandons her baby in a dumpster. The child is found alive and adopted by a white mother (Jessica Lange). Once Berry recovers from her addiction she wants the child back and hires Jackson playing a tough lawyer to get the child back for her.
11. DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)
Jackson has a small role in this landmark Lee film about race relations in New York City. The film would mark an important pairing for Jackson and Lee, with the duo working together quite successfully on future films. The film received two Oscar nominations for Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello) and for Lee’s screenplay.
10. KILL BILL VOLUME TWO (2004)
In this divisive second part to the equally divisive first film, Tarantino salutes the martial arts films that he loved so much as a child. The twist on them being that the protagonists are female. Tarantino and Jackson are frequent collaborators, and Jackson is at is usual level of quality acting in his small role in this sequel.
9. EVE’S BAYOU (1997)
Jackson also produced this film that offered him one of his most complex and acclaimed roles. The story is set in a Creole community in Louisiana and tells the story of complicated family relationships and how they affect a 10-year-old girl. It is interesting to note that the film started the career of young Jurnee Smollett-Bell and was written and directed by Kasi Lemmons.
8. INCREDIBLES (2004)
One of the most popular and successful animated films of recent years tells the story of a family of superhero’s who try to blend in to a quiet suburban lifestyle. Jackson lends his voice to the best friend of the father of the family played by Craig T. Nelson. Jackson’s character is also a superhero who has the ability to turn things into ice.
7. UNBREAKABLE (2000)
“Unbreakable” came from the always daring and imaginative mind of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. It is the story of a security guard who survives a train derailment and then finds that he is literally “unbreakable” and posses super human powers. Jackson has one of his most transformative roles as a physically disabled art gallery owner who becomes sort of a mentor to the newly empowered lead character played by Bruce Willis.
6. JACKIE BROWN (1997)
Tarantino’s sophomore directorial effort starred one of his childhood obsessions, Pam Grier, as a flight attendant who smuggles money from Mexico. Jackson plays an illegal gun dealer for whom Grier works. Jackson and Grier both received Golden Globe nominations for the film. Jackson also won the Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival.
5. THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)
Jackson teamed again with Tarantino for this story of a bounty hunter (Jackson) transferring his quarry across state lines during the Civil War era. He becomes involved with various lowlife types (the hateful eight of the title included Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh) all of whom become involved in a fight to the death confrontation in a remote cabin.
4. DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)
As he had done with “Inglorious Bastards,” Tarantino here created a revisionist historical drama where the sufferers got their revenge. In that film it was European Jews getting revenge on the Nazis. In this film it was American slaves rising up against Southern plantation owners. Jackson plays a slave who remains loyal to the plantation owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
3. A TIME TO KILL (1999)
Jackson received a Supporting Actor Golden Globe nomination but was surprisingly left off the list of Oscar nominees for this adaptation of a John Grisham novel. Jackson plays a man whose daughter is raped and murdered by two white supremacists. When it becomes possible that the killers will go free Jackson takes justice into his own hands and murders them. He is then defended in the courtroom by Matthew McConaughey in his first starring role.
2. JUNGLE FEVER (1991)
This was the film that launched Jackson into stardom. Director Lee explored the subject of interracial romances with Wesley Snipes starring as a married architect who begins an affair with a white woman. Jackson plays Snipes’ crack addicted brother. The film brought him a number of Best Supporting Actor Awards including ones from the Cannes Film Festival, the New York Film Critics Circle and Chicago Film Critics Circle.
1. PULP FICTION (1994)
Jackson earned his only Oscar nomination to date for this groundbreaking film that became a pop culture sensation upon its release. The film made Tarantino one of the most sought-after directors in film and spawned many crime caper films that became labeled as Tarantino-esque. Jackson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscar but lost the award to Martin Landau for “Ed Wood.” (Apparently Jackson was quite disappointed with his loss. It is fun to watch on YouTube his expletive when Landau’s name is announced as the winner).